Chemical Chaos

August 2, 2011

Sometimes when I read a book I will find myself attracted to other books on the same topic. This time my latest readings have been on chemistry and the periodic table. The one that started it was The Disappearing Spoon, which is a history of chemistry, the hunt for elements and the creation of the periodic table (check out the extras, especially the videos). This romp into chemistry and the personalities involved is accessible to everyone, including students in upper elementary school. Read the rest of this entry »

The Wonderful World of Statistics

January 29, 2011

We as parents stumble along trying to make sense of the world as we make sure our kids grow up healthy and educated. One thing that we often encounter is the mysterious world of statistics. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Your Fantastic Elastic Brain

January 13, 2011

Anyone who has stayed home with a child will tell you that they feel like their brain is shrinking from disuse. There are only so many times that you can play Chutes and Ladders or so many times you can watch an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba before you wonder if your neurons will ever be intellectually satisfied again.

That’s a weird way to start a review of a children’s book, but I just wanted to point out that I appreciate JoAnn Deak’s central message in Your Fantastic Elastic Brain… the more you use your brain, the more you challenge it, the stronger it will be. I know that I could feel my brain being robbed of nutrients when I first started staying home with baby Sasha, with nothing to do during naps but watch the ladies on the View bicker about which of them is more annoying.

Eventually, I learned that being smart about my choice of blogs and podcasts would enrich my life and stimulate my brain. I started hungering for topics on science and I created this blog to channel that energy, and to further stimulate my brain. And the more I learned, the more skills I was able to apply to my parenting. But as Sasha and her little sister Juliet grew up, I realized that I should concentrate less on my own brain and more on their brains, which is what this book is supposed to be about.

Your Fantastic Elastic Brain reminded me of an interview that I had with Ashley Merryman for the podcast. Ashley told us that there was research that indicated children could improve test scores just by telling them that their brains are muscles. After reading Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, which correctly points out that the brain is an organ but metaphorically behaves like a muscle, I went back to look at the study that Ashley mentioned in the interview.

Carol Dweck conducted research on underprivileged 7th grade students at a middle school in East Harlem. Compared to the control group who were only given basic study skills, the test group were given the same study skills but were also asked to read an essay on how the brain is like a muscle and needs to be challenged and exercised to grow.  In the following months, the teachers saw the grades significantly improve in the group that learned about brain elasticity, while the control group continued to languish. *

According to Ashley Merryman, some of the parents of the students in the test group were so shocked by their children suddenly making better grades that a few of them started inquiring what the heck kind of research was making their kids study all of a sudden. Of course, the researchers weren’t allowed to say, but now the secret is out, and it is embodied in Your Fantastic Elastic Brain.

Can we count this as an educational placebo pill? I don’t think it’s that easy, but the jury is out whether the brain does in fact behave like a muscle. There are scientists who are currently studying this claim by examining fMRI images before and after cognitive challenges, but by most accounts, the preliminary evidence seems to show that intelligence can increase by “exercising” the brain.

Whether it’s a placebo or not, JoAnn Deak’s Your Fantastic Elastic Brain may just be the very thing that your child needs to motivate her to study a little harder and make the better grade. I especially liked the section that explained how practicing can build new neurons and make a sport or activity easier the more you do it. I don’t want my kids retreating from ice skating or piano lessons because they find them to be too difficult or challenging. I want them to practice harder so their brain and muscles can strengthen as they improve.

In addition to the lessons on sculpting the brain, there are simple anatomical explanations of the functions of the parts of the brain. My 5 year old daughter didn’t show any signs of boredom as I explained the Cerebrum, Hippocampus, Cerebellum, Prefrontal Cortex, and the Amygdala. I admit that brain anatomy can be a challenging topic to share with young kids, but JoAnn Deak did a fantastic job of providing that information without overdoing it.

The illustrations by Sarah Ackerley are very cute and keep the book from seeming too academic. On the border of each page, a little mouse and owl make comedic quips about what they see. It’s a nice little humorous bonus to the other fun images found in the book.

Incidentally, I was also impressed by Little Pickle Press, the environmentally friendly publishing company. The book is printed on TerraSkin paper, which claims to be made out of stone. That’s pretty cool! You should go to Little Pickle Press and check out their site because they are having a contest that includes Science-Based Parenting readers. They’re also offering a 25% discount for our readers to buy Your Fantastic Elastic Brain at their web store. Just put ‘BBTSCI’ in the coupon area, and you will receive your instant discount.

Also, we will use a random number generator to pick one of the comments here to win a FREE copy of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak. Just leave a comment about any game, toy, activity, or book that you recommend for exercising a child’s brain. We will post the winner NEXT TUESDAY!

*Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development

We Were Wrong!… and that’s OK

December 7, 2010

One reason I love skepticism is that we rejoice in being wrong. Adam Savage has a saying that he prints on t-shirts worn by the Mythbusters staff… “Failure is ALWAYS an option”.

Yes! Absolutely right! We can’t help but have biased expectations based on our individual experiences, flawed perception, attitudes, or even just what we think we know, but good skeptics must be prepared to admit when the data proves them wrong.

That’s why I loved finding the children’s book “Boy, Were We Wrong About the Solar System” at the local public library.

Boy Were We Wrong About the Solar System” by Kathleen Kudlinski is a great trip through time that takes the reader through all the things people misunderstood about the solar system. It’s beautifully illustrated by John Rocco. I love the idea of using the solar system to explain how facts are provisional… The Sun does not revolve around the Earth, despite what the church’s holy book said; it’s the other way around. Saturn isn’t bumpy; that’s a ring around it. Pluto is not a planet; it’s actually no bigger than other planet like objects that we now call “dwarf planets”.

It’s awesome that this book celebrates the idea that scientific knowledge is constantly updated, and that this is a good thing. It’s not a flaw of science that we were wrong before – it’s an asset. The book ends with the idea that there will be more things that will soon be discovered that we’re currently wrong about. And, I’d love for my kids to know that it’s perfectly fine to be wrong, and that it’s even better to strive to be right.

Science-Based Gift Giving Guide 2010

November 2, 2010

If you’re looking for the best gifts to give your science-loving family this holiday season, we have the perfect guide for you. Listed below, are all of the authors, artists, and products that have been featured on Parenting Within Reason (and Podcast Beyond Belief), including some book recommendations by Dale McGowan and Jim Randolph from our soon-to-be-released latest episode. Plus, you’ll find some brain boosting games recommended by Nurture Shock author, Ashley Merryman in our interview with her.

If there’s a product that you think our readers would enjoy, please list it in the comments section. And if there are some products on here that you really enjoyed, let us know, and be sure to click the link and review it on amazon too.

Books for Parents

Books for Kids




*Recommended by Dale McGowan

**Recommended by Jim Randolph

***Recommended by Ashley Merryman

Podcasts For Your Kids!

August 8, 2010

Looking for some cool podcasts to share with your kids? I’ve recently come across some science-based podcasts that are directed toward kids.

Dragonfly TV is a video podcast by PBS Kids that features short science reports from real kids learning about science.  Here’s one example of what they have to offer…

Our friend Mike Meraz at the Actually Speaking podcast inspired his son to produce his own podcast about dinosaurs. Each week, six year old Aaron brings you facts about his favorite dinosaurs and answers questions sent in by kids around the world. It’s a really cute podcast! Go check out Aaron’s World and download it for your kids today!

Also, They Might Be Giants has a video podcast for families that features videos from their recent albums.

I’m always looking for other podcasts to share with the kids. Know of any good ones?

Spiderwick Chronicles: Special Features Fail

July 24, 2010

You won’t find too many fantasy-based movies for children that are better than The Spiderwick Chronicles. It’s an amazingly realistic depiction of the original book of illustrated fiction by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Spiderwick achieved such a level of realism that young children could very well have believed that the CGI images in the movie were real. It can be hard to suspend disbelief when you see the snot dripping from a hobgoblin’s nose.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is an especially scary movie, and parents of young children should be cautioned that the producers of the film went out of their way to instill terror. My children have yet to show any reaction to scary movies, including no visible signs of fear when they saw the skyscraper-sized demonic dragon in How to Train Your Dragon. Just to be safe, I let my girls watch the Special Features after Spiderwick concluded to show them how the monsters were animated. Breaking down the illusion of movie production can be a great way to show the artistry of film making, while easing a child’s mind that the more thrilling moments were achieved by computer animation.

However, on this occasion, I was shocked that the special features for Spiderwick started with a segment called “It’s All True”. Mark Waters, the director, began the segment in a flat deadpan voice that “everything you saw in the movies are true” and actually happened to real people who wrote letters to the writers of the original book. Say wha??? Then, to add fuel to the fire, the writers confirmed that these fairy stories were based on true events.

Ha ha. It’s all in good fun, right? No, I think that continuing the charade of realism in the special features is irresponsible, especially after such a terrifying film. I, of course, turned the special features off as soon as they hinted that the movie was based on a true story. I did go back to make sure that I didn’t miss production notes on how the creatures were animated, but there was nothing like that to be found.

What a shame.

The Problem With Playgrounds

July 12, 2010

You know what the problem is with playgrounds?

They just aren’t customizable! Well, there’s a new playground on the block that is trying to remedy that situation. Think of Imagination Playground as legos and tinker toys on steroids. Imagine having a customizable outdoor playground that stimulates creative play by offering various sized interlocking shapes, tubes, and platforms. How fun!

Check it out in the video below for more info…

Book Review: HOAXED!

June 7, 2010

The editors of Yes Mag produced a neat little book that caught my eye at the library. It’s called “Hoaxed! Fakes & Mistakes in the World of Science“.

I would have loved this book when I was a kid. It’s filled with all sorts of bizarre mysteries that turned out to be hoaxes. Yes, there are the usual suspects: Roswell aliens, big foot, and crop circles. But, there are also lesser known hoaxes: “The Birdman” Richard Meinertzhagen, the lost Tasaday tribe, and Pons and Fleischmann’s bogus cold fusion experiments.

Interspersed among the tales of frauds and hoaxes are little skeptic learning lessons, even a section called “The skeptic’s Toolbox”.  William of Ockham makes a visit, and he’s called “the skeptic’s patron saint”. There is also a lesson on the “law of conservation of energy” using a youtube  video as an example.

I liked that the book presented hoaxes in different ways – some were caused by hucksters, some were genuinely complicated, and some, like the legend of the platypus, weren’t hoaxes at all. The subtitle says it all “Fakes and Mistakes in the World of Science”.

The “Piltdown Man” hoax may be a blemish on the scientific record, but it’s a learning lesson that science isn’t infallible, not a reason to distrust evolution, as the creationists often claim. Some might worry that a book like this will only lead to distrust of science, but it’s not really that kind of book. It’s a book that reminds us how easy the world can be fooled, and how we should stay skeptical of urban legends and outlandish claims.

My kids were too young for the book, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying it. In fact, I learned quite a few new things. Mystery books are always so interesting, but the mysteries were always unsolved when I was a kid. It’s nice to see a book like this that answers the mysteries without losing any of the fun.

If you like Daniel Loxton’s Junior Skeptic columns, you’ll love this book too. Buy it and share it with your kids!

Bristol Palin vs Lady Gaga

May 20, 2010

Warning: most of this article is opinion.  My opinion.  Take it for what its worth.

Bristol Palin has been offered a very lucrative deal as a public speaker, raking in $15-30K per speaking engagement to talk about teen pregnancy!  Am I the only one who thinks this is nuts?  Surely we can find a better role model for today’s young women!  I know!  Lady Gaga!

Enter Bristol Palin. Bristol’s accomplishments in life so far include:

  1. graduating high school,
  2. being the daughter of a vice presidential candidate,
  3. becoming a teen pregnancy statistic,
  4. and enduring a nasty and public custody battle and a broken engagement with the father.
  5. All this before she was old enough to drink!

Uhhh…..did I miss something?  Bristol Palin is not a hero.  She is a statistic. I pass no judgement on her until she becomes willing to walk into my daughter’s school as a paid speaker and talk values / life skills.  Her choice to earn money this way is an insult to the professionals out there actually trying to reduce teen pregnancy and help teen girls become successful women.

Enter Lady Gaga. A truly controversial public figure, her videos are risqué, she is openly bisexual, and she’s now accused of hindering the Mideast Peace Process! What better contrast could we possibly get?

  1. Lady Gaga started piano at age 4, wrote her first ballad at 13, and started performing open mikes at 14.  At 17, she was accepted into NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
  2. When Lady Gaga felt she outgrew the school, she left.  She made a deal with her parents to go on her own for a year or go back to school. In her words: “I left my entire family, got the cheapest apartment I could find, and ate shit until somebody would listen.” (as a small business owner I respect that)
  3. Lady Gaga is successful!  Her music has topped charts around the world. She accomplished what she set out to do!
  4. Lady Gaga is living openly with her sexuality, is comfortable in her own skin, and is a confident woman in the world.
  5. Most of what she has, she earned herself.  And she has been generous and charitable to others in need.
  6. To be fair, Lady Gaga has allegedly had a drug problem, something I could not endorse or overlook. But then, Lady Gaga isn’t taking in money speaking to kids about her drug use.  She isn’t being rewarded for hypocrisy.

So who’s the better role model?  The teen statistic that is getting paid ridiculous money to say she’s sorry?  Or the current symbol of America’s lost soul?  Lady Gaga’s story is mostly a success story of a self-made person.  Bristol Palin’s is not.

Let me be clear:  I’m not elevating Lady Gaga up as a symbol for all girls to emulate.  I’m calling out a hypocrite where I see one: Bristol Palin.

As a Daddy, I have to.